Monday, December 29, 2008

Choking Man -- plans and purpose

Director: Steve Barron, 2006.

Choking Man is a picture of the alienation and disorientation felt by immigrants to the USA. It is set in Jamaica, a suburb of Queens New York, purportedly the most culturally diverse area in the world.

The protagonist, Jorge (Octavio Gomez Berrios), is a dishwasher in a shabby Greek diner. Ecuadorian, his English is barely passable and he is desperately shy. His shyness is a cloak that is slowly suffocating him.

Choking Man draws some comparison to Bella, since it, too, is set in a kitchen. Unlike the kitchen in Bella, which was lively and colorful, full of positive energy (apart from the owner), this kitchen is dull and grey, lacking energy. And Jorge finds himself friendless. Owner Rick (Mandy Patinkin, famous as Inigo Montoya from the Princess Bride) ignores him. Jorge doesn't even join the other workers at staff meetings. Only Amy (Eugenia Yuan), the new Chinese waitress, and Jerry (Aaron Paul) notice him . . . but for different reasons. Jerry is an Irish extrovert bully who keeps provoking Jorge, while Jorge retreats even further within himself. Meanwhile, Amy feels compassion for Jorge and perhaps a sense of immigrant-kinship with him. She stands up for him against Jerry, which only causes Jerry to notice her and her prettiness.

Bullying is one of the underlying themes of Choking Man. Not only is Jorge browbeaten at work, but his room-mate is domineering, telling him what to do. When he realizes Jorge has some affection for Amy, he tells him to choke Jerry and kill him. Like Ben-X, Choking Man pictures the pain and frustration felt by the victims of intimidation. Clearly, bullying is ethically wrong. No one deserves to be on the brunt of this kind of psychological torment.

Writer-director Barron uses, even over-uses, excessively tight camera-work to give a sense of claustrophobia. Zooming close in to Jorge's face, many scenes are dominated by just his face. And even his face is hidden by his hoodie and hat. This succeeds in communicating the stress and inner demons Jorge is experiencing. And he juxtaposes real life with short animated segments to communicate even more clearly what is going on in Jorge's head.

One scene stands out. In trying to reciprocate and perhaps reach out with a shy, romantic love, he wants to give Amy a gift. He sees a red Chinese dragon in a pawnshop window. Summoning up the courage to enter, itself a victory, he asks about the toy in the window. The owner brings an Elmo doll, and Jorge is unable to communicate what he wants. You can feel the frustration at lack of communication and at his sense of being a stranger in a strange land.

Overshadowing the many kitchen scenes is a poster showing a choking man highlighting the Heimlich maneuver. Jorge works under this poster and spends much of his time looking at it. This poster is a metaphor for Jorge's feelings of frustration and loneliness and the almost literal asphyxiation he is experiencing. Only in physical expulsion is there any chance of recovery. With the Heimlich there is hope, hope of clearing the blockage and regaining the breath of life. And the movie ends on a note of hope, with the Heimlich maneuver causing Jorge to finally confront his demons and subjugate his suffocation.

At one point in Choking Man, Jorge sits in the local Catholic church listening to the priest (Jaime Tirelli, who was the father in Bella). The priest looks directly at Jorge and preaches on God's plans. It is almost as if he is telling him that God has plans that will rise above the suffocating situation he finds himself in, if he will only trust the Lord. He has a raison d'etre, despite the seeming monotony and aimlessness of his life. Even though a struggling immigrant, there is ultimately a plan and a purpose for him. And that is true even for us, who follow Jesus. God has plans for us. He knows them (Jer. 29:11). They are plans that include hope and a future. There is a purpose for us in this life. But we must cling to him and to this hope through faith whatever the circumstances might be. We can trust in Him and these plans.

Further, a nameless black man appears in one scene. He walks up to Jorge in the subway station crying out Psalm 23:4: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for your rod and your staff they comfort me." And then he gives him a gift. This is an act of sheer grace. It tells Jorge that even when things look bleakest, his God will be with him. And it reminds us that God will be with us in our darkest moments. His grace is all we need. He will comfort us, if we let him.

So, introvert or extravert, how do we respond to the times when we feel like we are choking, dying, and cannot take even a single breath? Do we struggle against this feeling, hopeless ready to give up? Or do we look to the God who gives hope and can make a choking man breathe once again?

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

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